Former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director John Brennan slammed Jews on Tuesday, demanding they be held to a higher standard than others. "I always found it difficult to fathom how a nation of people deeply scarred by a history replete with prejudice, religious persecution and unspeakable violence perpetrated against them would not be empathetic champions of those whose rights and freedoms are still abridged."
Brennan made his comment while posting an op-ed he had written in The New York Times about the Palestinian quest for statehood. In his telling of it, he implied that Jews must have a special empathy for others while non-Jews have no special need to be empathetic.
Brennan has not made similar comments about other victimized people, such as the African American descendants of slaves in the US; nor has he held other countries to a higher standard based on the ethnic and religious origins of their citizens.
Brennan's attack on Israel, based neither on universal values nor on international law, is not unique. Others have made similar comments.
David Ward, a British Liberal Democrat MP, wrote in 2013 that "having visited Auschwitz twice, once with my family and once with local schools, I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel, and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza."
In short, because Jews endured genocide, they have to live according to a higher standard than those who perpetrated genocide.
White Europeans like Ward don't appear to make these comments about any other group or country. They never say, for instance, that because the Russians suffered in the Second World War, the Soviet Union should not have gone on to suppress Eastern Europe within a few years of the war.
Non-Jews demanding unique qualities of Jews has a long history.
Howard Dean also slammed Jews for not being perfect in 2019. "Israel's government has lost its soul and its purpose. The nobility of the Jewish people conferred by their terrible suffering is being squandered by cheap bigoted political crooks. The result will ultimately be the loss of a Jewish homeland which would be an unspeakable tragedy."
Since when did the existence of any state depend on the exemplary moral behavior of its leaders?
This singling out of only Jews and now Israel has a long history and is one of the norms of both Western narratives and traditional European and Christian antisemitism. It presents Jews as a unique "other" and singles them out for various tropes. They are sometimes depicted as uniquely vengeful, as in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, in contrast to Christian forgiveness, and post-Shoah accused of failing to be uniquely good.
They argue that Jews as martyrs after the Holocaust, must be, above all else, empathetic toward other downtrodden people. This argument would be one thing if made by Jews, but when certain unique qualities are demanded by non-Jews of the Jewish "nation" only recently restored as a territorial state, it becomes part of the broader antisemitism of the West. It is also not a unique argument. Long before Brennan and Ward made their accusations the British historian Arnold Toynbee called Zionism "demonic" and equated Jews in Israel with Nazism.
The trend, whether to demonize or excessively praise, is similar because in no way are Jews permitted to behave like other groups in a similar situation, who doubt their hostile neighbors' goodwill.
Jews are not permitted to behave like other groups in a similar situation.
If they do not conform to the saintly status demanded of them they are nothing less than Nazis. It is difficult not to see two millennia of Jew-hatred in Europe as a conscious or subconscious reason behind the demand that Jews exhibit unique qualities of goodness as a nation state to prove they are not evil.
Again and again, the Brennan, Ward and Dean-style narrative is presented to critique either all Jews, or all Israel, whenever politicians conduct a policy that these men disapprove.
These same critics don't generalize about Americans when, say, white police officers in their country murder African Americans. Their collective accusations against Jews or Israel has no parallel to those they hold for their own community, whether of Christians or whites.
The argument is essentially: Europe put you in gas chambers and now we will tell you how to behave. The historic abusers – the ones who carried out slavery, colonialism, genocide and crusading – are not held to a unique standard. These critics never make the same remarks about hundreds of other nations and dozens of religions who fail to live up to their professed ideals or have no ideals.
This pathological obsession with Jews is linked to historic antisemitism.
This pathological obsession with Jews – portrayed either as saints or Nazis, uniquely vengeful or having a special role to play – is linked to historic antisemitism. If it wasn't, then we would just as likely see tweets by Brennan, Ward and others demanding the same of other countries. They would argue that because Muslims have suffered "Islamophobia," Iran should not commit human rights abuses. Nobody expects the victims of "Islamophobia" to be more saintly as a consequence.
This puts Jews in an awkward position: first being murdered for being different and being Jewish and then being told that as the remnant they have to behave with special empathy or be condemned for lacking "empathy."
The overall issue is that Jews are never portrayed as equal or similar to others. Prior to the Holocaust various demands were made on Jews, either accusing them of not assimilating with the countries in which they lived or accusing them of assimilating too well and dominating them.
After the Shoah the demand shifted to demanding perfection from them in their capacity as a sovereign state. These demands always benefit the Western narrative, which can shift blame to the Jewish state for not behaving according to a Christian standard of personal morality which no Christian state has ever imposed on itself or others.
The Brennans, Deans and Wards of the world would do better to first hold themselves and their community to a high standard, rather than treat every abuse in the US or UK as the responsibility of a few bad apples, while demanding that every Israeli action be a religious test of the country's right to exist.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.